Pope Francis is wrong on free speech

January 18, 2015

Pope Francis has staked out his position in the free speech debate, so let's take a closer look.

Just like Bill Donohue and Bernard Toutounji, whom I wrote about earlier, the Pope argues that if you offend someone's religion then you are asking for a violent reaction. In other words, Charlie Hebdo had it coming to them. He says
“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
...And so many people who speak badly about other religions, or religions [in general], they make fun of, let’s say toy with [make into toys] other people’s religions, these people provoke and there can occur what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. (full transcript here).
The implication here is that Charlie Hebdo was an insulting bully who taunted the terrorists, and they fought back in the most natural way that is to be expected. Not that it's good to punch anyone, mind you - the Pope doesn't go so far as to condone the resulting violence, but his stance can be summed up as: Charlie Hebdo, what did you expect? It's only "normal" that you got a punch in the nose.

Does this give legitimacy to the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo? Hard to see it any other way. The Vatican issued a damage control statement in the wake of the Pope's interview, clarifying that the Pope "in no way intended to be interpreted as justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week." Obviously not. However, the Pope's statement still comes across as speaking from both sides of his mouth - condemning the violence on the one hand, but also excusing it on the other.

Moreover, is it really "normal" to hit someone who insults you? And should we tolerate this kind of reaction and build our free speech laws around it? One Muslim blogger put it this way: "I am appalled that Pope Francis would justify hitting someone in response to an insult. Words, after all, should only be met with words – or by simply ignoring the remark". 

Even if some people have the natural tendency to get fired up and punch back in response to an offensive remark, such a Neanderthal response should hardly be tolerated, encouraged or even made to seem somehow appropriate by pushing for tougher limits on free speech. Isn't the role of religion in particular is to raise people to a higher standard? What happened to "turn the other cheek"?

Where should we draw the line for free speech?

The Pope appears to support at least self-censorship if not outright legal limits to freedom of speech. What's more, in the quotes above, he would draw the line where one "provokes", "insults" or "makes fun" of any religious faith. He also put it this way:
[T]here is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects life, human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit and I have taken this sense of limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that in regard to my mother.
This is what the Pope is really saying: lay off religions and show us some respect. It's a message that makes sense, especially from the head of a major world religion. But just how much would it really restrict free speech?

Consider that satire is a classic form of political speech that has been around since ancient times. Here are some online definitions:
"The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues." (google) and;
A way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc. (1) : a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn (2) trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly (Meirriam-Webster)
The one thing that satire does NOT do: satire does not show respect. Quite on the contrary, satire is in the business of stripping respect off any targeted area and showing that the emperor has no clothes.

Obviously, those who are targeted often don't take well to that. In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury even issued a decree banning the publication of satire, and ordered the burning of satirical works.

But political satire is an important part of free speech. It can definitely lead to anger, offence and misunderstanding. but at its best, it can hold up a high-definition mirror to our faces and show us the warts that we don't want to see.

Is there a case to be made that satire which includes a religious figure or which focuses on the main beliefs of a religious faith should be treated differently, and should perhaps be banned or tightly regulated? Some have made that case, and various countries have different approaches to dealing with this topic. But in countries where satire is so tightly regulated, I believe political speech is impoverished and the public exchange of ideas loses out.

What's more, there is the small matter of: if we are to legislate rules, then who will decide what is offensive? And why should religions get special protection when atheists hold certain beliefs just as close to their hearts? Many people have replaced religions with their own "secular sacred" core beliefs, such as abortion, feminism, homosexual rights, etc. Perhaps these beliefs too, then, should be exempt from the heat of satire or other "offensive" speech.

"I claim my right not to be offended!!!!!!!"

Looking around at our current social climate, it seems that the right NOT to be offended is on its way to becoming a constitutional right in many countries. After all, for the atheist liberal culture that has washed over the Western world, tolerance is the pinnacle of all virtue, and tolerance seems like the antithesis of offending someone by pointing out the errors of their ways. To make matters worse, many people are very easily "offended" by just about anything.

However, the usual suspects in the societal fight to root out offensive speech are (drumroll)... conservatives and Christians. Here in Canada that is particularly obvious. At this very time, Trinity Western University is fighting for the life of its law school, because lawyers across Canada have decided that they will not allow among their ranks those who don't support same-sex marriage. The new sensibility among the legal elite appears to be that saying "marriage is between a man and a woman" is equivalent to hate speech against the gay community. Christians are now the new racists.

Prolife Christians are also the ones standing around abortion facilities, disturbing the mental peace of abortion providers and procurers with uncomfortable truths, whether spoken or graphic. While our speech is not satirical, it is nonetheless highly "offensive" to those whom we target.

On many fronts, Christians are well acquainted with fighting for our right to speak out. We are dealing with increasing efforts to muzzle us. In fact, how often do we get a chance to stand against free speech? Suddenly, here comes our chance: Charlie Hebdo has mocked Christianity. How will we react?

If we react just like the liberal atheists do, then they are right and deserve to win.

Here we are, we have been offended. If we immediately start to clamor for shutting down the speech of those who "offend" us, then we are just like them. Then it's all just about power, isn't it? When they are in power, they muzzle us, and when we are in power, we will muzzle them. If it's not about truth and freedom to present ideas regardless of whom they offend, then it's really just a plain old political power struggle.

If we are just like them, then we are just sore losers. It's hypocritical to cry "free speech rights" when we are on the losing end, then "right not to be offended" when we are on the winning end.

Let freedom reign
Free speech.

Freedom of speech is not the enemy of religion. In fact, satire won't do much beyond "offending" its target unless there is some truth to the ideas that it is putting across. So the best response to satire is just to ignore it and to prove it wrong.

On the other hand, shutting down speech to preserve status and respect in the eyes of others will backfire. Look at Saudi Arabia to see how far that can go.

Freedom is perhaps the most important condition for humanity. We cannot genuinely find our way to God unless we are truly free to think and choose our own path in life. Why weren't we made as automatons who couldn't sin? Because forced goodness is not a real goodness.

When we impose restraints and limits on people's behaviour, we need to tread very carefully. There are many laws these days, rules in every direction. Sometimes there is a genuine need for these constraints. But speech is an area so vital to the freedom of the human spirit that it deserves very particular protection.

If I err, I would rather err on the side of freedom.

Let the bells of freedom ring.

Photos: top photo: colemama via photopin cc; bottom photo: Oldmaison via photopin cc

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